[7 July 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
A band with the word “preservation” in its name now has an album of all new material. To me, that only seems fair. Here’s a band that gave itself the task, way back in the early ‘60s, of preserving New Orleans jazz for future generations. Many members have come and gone, giving the impression that the preservation of the songs and the swing style were more of a priority than those who played it. That means that all of these guys can play “When the Saints Go Marching In” in their sleep. Some passed-on members probably still had the fingering down during the rigor mortis stage. Inside Preservation Hall, there’s a sign that has prices affixed to various requests. A shout for “When the Saints…” will cost you $10. I don’t know if anyone has ever honored that. The two times I’ve visited the legendary venue, I didn’t dare ask. I needed the extra cash for drinks.
So you can’t blame the Preservation Hall Band for incorporating a new song now and then. There have been a handful through the years, like “Bourbon Street Parade” by George Lewis (the clarinetist, not the trombonist). But That’s It! is the first album by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to have so many new songs in one place. There are two ways to read into the title, which is also the name of the instrumental toe-tapper that leads off the album. A Tremé puritan might grouse “that’s it, I’m outta here”. Someone with a more open mind could use it to exclaim “that’s it, eureka!” but there’s no need for superlatives in either direction, because the music for That’s It! sounds like it could have easily come from early 20th century Louisiana. And it’s quite fun, too. But why did it take a singer from a popular psychedelic/indie rock band to make it come about?
How Jim James came about to produce That’s It! isn’t exactly clear to me. But anyone who fears that his presence might have jammified/My Morning Jacketicized the band doesn’t need to worry at all. James, who co-produced the album with the band’s tubist Ben Jaffe, doesn’t lay a finger on the band or the music. And though they didn’t write the songs by themselves, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are still immersed in the songwriting process. Paul Williams, Dan Wilson and Chris Stapleton pull together along with Charlie Gabriel, Rickie Monie and Clint Maedgen’s help to bring us these eleven new tunes. Again, where Jim James comes into this, I don’t know. But it happened, and that’s what counts.
The current lineup of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, in case you needed to know, is Mark Braud on trumpet; Charlie Gabriel on clarinet; Freddie Lonzo on trombone; Rickie Monie on piano; Clint Maedgen on tenor saxophone; Jaffe and Ronell Johnson on tuba and Joseph Lastie Jr. on the drums. Braud, Gabriel, and Maedgen share vocal duties and Jaffe takes credit as “creative director”. “That’s It!”, “Sugar Plum”, “Yellow Moon”, and “Emmalina’s Lullaby” are the only instrumentals, the last one being a 1:47 postlude that sounds like it’s being played on a piano that went out of tune 50 years ago. The lyrical boogies come in a variety of forms, including a Halloween scare (“Rattlin’ Bones”), relationship discord (“I Think I Love You”), atonement (“Dear Lord (Give Me the Strength)”) and just having a night out on the town (“Come With Me”). And whatever the struggle is in the hook-heavy “Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong”, it sounds like our guy is determined to see it through.
Come to think of it, That’s It has a very determined spirit. There’s nothing timid about the band’s break from tradition here. True, with eleven new tunes, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band aren’t exactly “preserving” anything. But if all goes well, these tunes will be worth preserving 50 years from now. Embraceable them, embraceable then.